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Shrink at the Movies: Broadway’s Revival of “Pippin” (2013)

Taking a little diversion from my usual shrink’s take on movies, I’m going to share my thoughts on an event that I find incredibly exciting, even though I wasn’t even there — except perhaps in spirit. Last week (Thursday, 4/25) saw the long-anticipated opening on Broadway of the first revival of Stephen Schwartz’s long-running musical “Pippin” since its first run starting in 1973 and running for over 1,000 performances, making stars of Ben Vereen, (choreographer/director) Bob Fosse, and others.

Why would a shrink be interested in this? Well, first, in my “off-hours” I’ve been known to train on a circus trapeze myself for general fitness (which is a lot harder, but a lot more fun, than it looks), and director Diane Paulus has re-conceived “Pippin” as under a big-top circus, complete with dancers and acrobats mixing into one kinesthetic kaleidoscope. I’m also a gay shrink, and the revival of “Pippin” is known for featuring hunky dancer/acrobats in colorful costumes that tend to show off muscle (my personal favorite is Erik Altemus as “Louis”). And, “Pippin” is one of my favorite scores of all-time, one of several Broadway scores that I could, conceivably, sing “on-demand” from start to finish (cough*geek!*cough). But those are the personal reasons.

The professional side of me examines “Pippin”s themes that emerge after all that “Magic to Do” (the opening number) gets done, and one is left with the messages and lessons that linger after all the “golden glance” has faded.

For, at its core, Pippin is about a young man searching the existential questions and “meaning of life”, which I tend to help my younger clients with frequently in my office. Who am I? Why am I here? What’s the (friggin’) point of all this? What has meaning? Why should I settle for the ordinary, when I am extra-ordinary?

These and other questions get explored, in hip-gyrating Fosse-esque dance moves and in gloriously-tuneful, Schwartz- style songs (just like his other Broadway hits, “Godspell”, “Wicked”, and, the lesser-known but still-long-running, “The Magic Show”).

During Pippin’s first song, “Corner of the Sky”, we learn that he is recently home from school and searching for someplace that he “fits in”, like “cats on the windowsill”. How many college students today, up to their jazz-hands in student-loan debt, come home to their parents’ home or set out for some “exciting” city (that leaves them stimulated, but chronically broke) and find that there are no jobs and no real point beyond “decaf or regular”? Whether it’s Pippin’s Middle Ages or the present day, we can find plenty of young men (and women) trying to make their place in the world. Pippin asks the questions that millions of young Americans are asking themselves today.

Pippin makes valiant attempts to find what he’s existentially looking for. He seeks it out in the “Glory” of war, only to find that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be (and, pray tell, how many recent returnees from Iraq and Afghanistan could tell you THAT these days?).

Pippin’s Jiminy-Cricket/Clarence-The-Angel style mysterious mentor, the “Leading Player”, warns him to use concepts from Mindful Meditation and being “in the moment” that we hear so much about today, imploring him to live each day for itself and savor the “Simple Joys” of life.

The message, however compelling, doesn’t quite sink in from his mentor, and Pippin seeks the wisdom of the ages from his age-defying grandmother, “Berthe”, who cajoles him to start living, for “Spring will turn to Fall”… in just “No Time At All.” I’ve had this experience, myself, as an older 40-something therapist trying to gently guide some of my 20-something clients from making the same mistakes I did at their age, and give the advice I never got when I wish someone had (most of which is conspiratorial, frank, and subversive, and the exact opposite of what their parents tell them, which my young clients appreciate immensely).

Still unconvinced, Pippin seeks out (and finds!) the joys of carnal pleasures (“With You”). I can’t blame him; all this current talk about “sex addiction clinics” (there are five, count ’em, five of these in Beverly Hills alone, all expensive, all commercial, all of dubious value) gives the youthful joy of sex a really bad name. But, I have worked with guys (and some women) who really do over-do it with sex, as a means of fulfillment, in the same shallow way that “retail therapy” solves real problems. Satisfied, but somehow chronically un-satisfied, Pippin zips it up and moves on, still searching for his particular “corner”.

He next tries to find that elusive fulfillment by murdering his father, the King, becomes king himself, and then finds that’s a thankless job due to complaints from the People about inadequate social services and high taxes (whoever heard of such a thing!). He brings his father back to life (it’s a 70’s musical; stay with me) and moves to the country.

Here, he finds “Catherine”, a widow with a young son (who has a sick pet duck). He finds that “patching the roof, and pitching the hay” is nothing for someone as “Extraordinary” as him. How many of us all, in frustration and existential angst, have uttered, “I went to college for THIS?” or, “You gotta be kidding me?”, right before doing something we really hoped our Pride could keep us from ever doing. We’ve all been there, and we can all identify with the frustration, we all yearn for living lives that validate our own (occasionally grandiose) visions of ourselves. Yet, when Pippin does it, he looks so stupid in his malcontent. Could it be that that’s the point that bookwriter Roger Hirson would want us to get? Perhaps so.

Struggling to come to terms with the almost inevitably sorta mediocrity of everyday life, Pippin starts to finally consider those simple joys in a “Love Song” with Catherine.

Catherine returns the sentiment, perhaps foreshadowing their happy life together, with her own complacent capitulation in “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man”. Despite the inherent and inevitable flaws of any partner, when it comes right down to it, if they weren’t around, we’d miss them, too, even on their worst days. Ain’t love grand?

Pippin has one more chance to literally glow in glory, as the mysterious Leading Player and the accompanying band of hot, well-choreographed Players, entice him to burn himself up in a Mediaeval fire-box contraption that will offer short-term, perhaps, but still radiant, glory — like the glowing Sun. This is some serious stuff, for in all its stylized splendor, a catchy Broadway musical seriously contemplates the merits and detriments of suicide. As a therapist, I’ve seen this issue and up-close and personal a number of times. Sure, no Leading Player, no pyrotechnics, but a confused and desperate person seriously contemplating the decision, nevertheless. This is where it all “gets real”.

I won’t completely spoil the ending, because I like the show and I want people to go see it on Broadway often enough to keep the show open until I venture away from my West Coast enclave (that I rarely leave) in time to see it in New York myself (Music Box Theatre).

But in the course of “an hour or two”, there is certainly magic to be done in a musical that helps us have all of our lives flash “before our very eyes” (oops; oh, wait — that lyric is from “The Magic Show” finale — sorry — told you I was a Broadway geek) and, at last, makes us feel just a little better about the “extraordinariness” of the ordinary lives we lead.

“Simple Joys” — indeed.

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